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Why is Sugar Bad for Me? Easy Ways to Explain Added Sugars in Class

In 2020, the fight against added sugars continues. While some progress has been made - following the introduction of a sugar tax, the average beverage sold in Great Britain is now 28% less sugary - the pace of change has also been slower than hoped for. In recent weeks, charities like the British Heart Foundation have stressed the fact many children are still consuming more than twice the recommended sugar allowance.

Despite this, there are signs families are changing their purchasing behaviours and choosing sugary drinks less often due to a greater awareness of the prevalence and impact of added sugars. We believe the influence of schools has much to do with this transition though they don't always get enough credit for the role they play.

It's perhaps because we tend to think of adults influencing young people and not the other way around. Yet, in reality, anybody with experience of raising a family will know children are often a rich source of new ideas, beliefs and trends. What parent or grandparent hasn't learned a new word, game or fact which didn't exist when they were at school?

Studies have shown, when it comes to nutrition, children can be more accepting of healthy changes than adults (who are already stuck with bad habits and fewer opportunities for learning). They might be fickle creatures - carrots are never going to trump lollipops - but lessons about added sugars, healthy fats, and hydration naturally make their way from classroom to home where, for many, they are a new and valuable proposition.

This is all to say, it's important to teach children about the impact of added sugars in a way that's accessible and...honest. It is easier and faster to tell pupils 'sugar is bad for you.' However, this is only partly true and does little to empower young people in a world where sugar is both unavoidable and essential for health. It can also trigger unnecessary anxieties if distinctions aren't made between naturally occurring and added (or free) sugars. Bananas are rich in sugar, but they're very different from a cake or a can of fizzy soda!

The way you teach sugar awareness in your classroom matters. It matters because it shapes pupils' perceptions of healthy eating and because it's more likely than you think to reach the ears of those with real purchasing power. So, we've put some tips together on how and what to include in your curriculum.

1. What Is Sugar?

Sugars are naturally present in many healthy foods (lactose, fructose, etc). In fact, the presence of natural sugars in milk, bread, and fruits clearly tells us our bodies need sugar to function. This is why it's important to distinguish between 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' sugars and explain their differences.

Key Points

  • Natural sugars are just there. Ask your pupils to consider why they've never had to add sugar to an orange to make it sweet. It's just there inside the fruit, waiting to be turned into nutritional building blocks by our bodies. We cannot see it because, just like fibre or protein, it's locked inside the fruit until it reaches our tummies.

  • Added sugars are sugars we can see and touch (brown, white). We sprinkle them over cereals, pour them into cake recipes, drink them in sodas and scoff them in toffees. If you forget to add sugar to a cake recipe, it won't taste very sweet because the main ingredients (butter, flour, egg) aren't sweet. We use added sugars to make foods taste the way we want them to.

  • The reason natural sugars are healthier than added sugars is because added sugars require little to no bodily processing. Before we eat them, they already stripped of nutritional 'good stuff,' so they don't give us anything helpful. Unless we use them all up quickly by doing lots of physical activity, they hang around in the body causing problems.

2. If Added Sugar Is So Bad, Why Does It Taste Better Than Natural Sugar?

This is a common question in classrooms and a worthy one! Most people would agree chocolate and sweets taste better than apples, but why? Why do we prefer the unhealthy stuff? The answer is complex, but it's worth addressing the motivations behind unhealthy eating. If we understand why people choose certain foods, we can better understand phenomena like obesity.

Key Points

  • If you need to move very fast for a short amount of time, sugar can give you a burst of energy. When human were cavemen, they used this energy to run away from tigers and spend long days hunting for healthy foods. For a caveman, sugar was a way to stay alive. Modern humans don't get chased by tigers anymore, but their brains still associate sugary foods with survival. Modern humans need only a tiny amount of added sugar to survive but we eat even more than caveman did!

  • The reason we prefer added sugars is because they are sweeter than sweet; much sweeter than natural sugars. They also affect our bodies much more quickly because they do not need to be broken down and processed. Eat a piece of bread and it takes time for the natural sugars to be released. Eat a blueberry muffin and the burst of energy occurs right away. We prefer added sugars because they make us happy RIGHT NOW, even if they're not good for our bodies.

  • Natural sugars (like the ones in fruit) taste less sweet than added sugars. They also take longer to affect our bodies. However, they are more useful. They contain sugar and lots of other stuff that's good for the body. They still provide the energy to run, jump and play and it lasts for longer too.

3. Will I Get Sick If I Eat Sugary Foods?

It can be tricky for primary age pupils to grasp the fact foods aren't inherently 'good' or 'bad' which is why we use binaries like 'unhealthy' and 'healthy.' While these are useful descriptors, class discussions about nutrition must stress the role of moderation. We don't want children to fear sugar, just to understand that it's only helpful in volumes our bodies can handle.

Key Points

  • Even unhealthy foods like crisps, burgers, chips and pizzas don't cause harm in small amounts. We call them 'treats' because they are safe to eat occasionally. The good news is, we know exactly how much added sugar a person can eat without causing any damage to their body.

  • The amount of added sugar you can safely eat depends on your size (adults can eat more than children ). If you're 4-6 years old, the maximum is FIVE TEASPOONS per day. If you're 7-10 years old, the maximum is SIX TEASPOONS.

  • Here are some examples of foods with added sugars in them. There are TWO TEASPOONS of added sugar in a vanilla yoghurt. There is ONE TEASPOON of added sugar in a serving of tomato ketchup. There are THREE TEASPOONS of added sugar in a chocolate orange cake bar. Most servings of ice cream contain between THREE and SIX TEASPOONS of sugar per serving. Ask your pupils to look at food labels on their next visit to a supermarket.

  • It's worth discussing fruit juice as part of sugar awareness lessons, because it's a curious exception to the rule. On the one hand, the fruit it contains makes it healthy. On the other hand, its natural sugars have been squished and squashed so much that they behave more like added sugars. They're so 'mushy,' our bodies do not need to process them. So, fruit juice IS a healthier option than, say, fizzy cola. But it is NOT as healthy as milk or water and should only be drunk in small amounts.